Fred Itua, Abuja
Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe represents Abia South in the Senate. He is also the Minority Leader of the upper legislative chamber. In this interview in Abuja, he speaks on President Muhammadu, the Ninth Senate and recent threats by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) to Southeast leaders, as well as other salient issues. Excerpts:
Your selection as Minority Leader of the Senate didn’t come to many as a surprise. But some people have argued that the position is not befitting…
(Cuts in) It is not. On the contrary, we can say that being the Minority Leader means that you’re leading the minority parties. It is a leadership position and it is not anything that is beneath me. Actually, I think there was an aberration the last time. That gave a different view. Usually, the position of the Minority Leader is reserved for a more experienced lawmaker in the parliament.
With ranking senators like you, how did that aberration happen?
The aberration was cured in my case. Let me tell you how it was cured. In 2015, what the PDP did was to zone the different positions to the geopolitical zones in the country and then left the senators from those zones to make the choice and present to the House. But in this case, in order to cure the aberration of the past where the choice was not what was generally expected with regards to cognate experience, what the PDP did this time was to zone the positions, but insisted that everybody must be part of taking the decision. So, all members of the PDP caucus who were there on that day the choices were made, had a unanimous decision.
There is this fear that the leadership of the Senate is too close to the Executive and that it may affect the independence of the parliament. How do you defend that?
I don’t think that necessarily follows. Usually, there is always an adversarial relationship. What happened in the last dispensation was that the adversarial relationship was very sour from the beginning because of the way the leadership emerged, especially the presiding officers. That now soured the relationship in such a way that it was exploited by those who didn’t want us to have a smooth relationship for both sides. This time, you will also notice that previous presiding officers before the last one were close to their different presidents. I don’t think that the efforts being made by the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan to foster a close relationship with the Executive means that he will drag all of us to kowtow to the Executive. That will never happen. Where it is necessary for us to disagree with the Executive, we will do so. The minority in the Senate is not emasculated in anyway. We have a number that will make it very difficult for anybody to have his way without proper consultations with the other side. In the past when the PDP had the needed 74 (2/3) needed to pass legislations, it was still very rocky. There is also no guarantee that the number you have today will get anyone anything passed. So, I don’t see where it will happen. Actually, what will come out of this will be a sense of mutual respect, where they will know that we will not give in to anti-people policies. We will also know that we can’t bark the Executive into a tight corner. So, I am sure we will get along very well.
The last ministerial screening was described by Nigerians as a poor outing for the Senate because of the way it handled the process. What is your take?
Let me say that we are aware that the process didn’t get the approval of the public. We are also going to take steps to correct the perception. This process has a root in something that is very fundamental and everybody tends to overlook that thing. When the Eight Senate was winding up, we did something. It passed a resolution and sent it to the president that it will serve the country better for nominations of ministers to come with portfolios attached. Every president from the time of Olusegun Obasanjo has shied away from doing this fundamental thing. What that has reduced the screening process to is that you get a man who is an engineer. But you’re not certain if he will be sent to power. How do you assess such a person if there is no portfolio attached? So, we are reduced to asking general questions. That is one aspect of it. I want the Nigerian public to be aware of that. That is where then problem lies. I will also say this. When you promise something, honour demands that you keep to it. The APC government promised change. They promised that they will not do the same things that were done in the past. In the past, ministerial nominees were sent without the portfolios attached. Then what is the change if you’re going to do the same thing the previous governments did? We were even surprised at the number of ministerial nominees sent in view of the lean purse and the dire economic situation in the country, which they were trumpeting. We thought they were going to keep to the provisional constitutional requirement of 36 ministers or maybe 37 if you want to accommodate the FCT. Instead, you exceeded the 42, which the PDP government had in the past. Now, you have 44 ministers. But the PDP had only 42 as the highest. Where is the change? Another point is this. The PDP caucus wanted to have the nominees properly grilled. But in our meeting before the screening, there was this argument that the president had already selected the people he wanted to work with and questioned why we will change that now. Knowing that the APC government is always looking for excuses, we decided to allow them have their way before the Presidency will come out and start accusing us. We didn’t want anybody to use the parliament as an excuse for inaction. So, we said if that is how they want it, we will give it to them. That was what happened. If you can recall, on the floor, I pointed out to all the members that we had not done the right thing. I argued that we were supposed to screen and not endorse them. They may make a mistake. After all, nobody is infallible. After all, in the last one, he brought in people who had to resign. It means he is also fallible. What we can assure Nigerians is that, for their welfare, we will always be on their side.
The leadership of the 9th Senate has repeatedly claimed that it would not be a rubber stamp, but the body language of Lawan, who sometimes, interject when critical comments about happenings in the country are being made leave everyone in doubt. Aren’t you worried that he would gag the opposition by his actions?
The Senate President will not gag anybody. He cannot do that. I can assure you of that. It will not work. He cannot stop us from performing our function. It is not even in his interest to interject comments of fellow senators. Doing so would mean that he was no longer working for the interest of the country, but the interest of the president and that is not the oath that he swore. He swore an oath to the Federal Republic of Nigeria and we would not hesitate to point it out to him. I don’t think there should be any fear on that.
Still on the body language of the Senate President. He made a remark during the screening of a ministerial nominee recently that the Federal Government should present the highly controversial Water Resources Bill for consideration because he is interested in its passage. Is this not suggestive of a leader ready to do the bidding of a certain interest against the interest of the entire country?
I don’t think that will ever happen. I was there in the Eight National Assembly. It was a constitutional provision that was being breached with the bill. If they bring any bill that breaches the constitution, it will never pass. I can assure Nigerians on that. I do not also think we are going to talk based on the interest of either as southerners or as northerners. If you are going to work, you will be guided by two things on the floor of the Senate. The first is the constitution, which is the grand norm. Second is the rules of the Senate. On the basis of that, you cannot bring anything and run it through just like that. If it is a constitutional infraction, how is he going to do it? It is not going to be possible. It’s like when Senator Kwakwanso brought in a bill on grazing. But since the constitution does not place such matter on the Exclusive List, the bill was rejected. So, if something is brought to the floor of the Senate, which does not conform to the things that we can legislate on, how are we going to do that? It is not going to be possible. We must confine ourselves to what the constitution says. Except if the constitution was amended which is not an easy task to undertake. Anything that would be amended must be in the interest of this country.
Members of the Indigenous People of Biafra have issued a warning to politicians from the Southeast geopolitical zone to stay away from foreign countries to avoid the type of treatment they gave to Senator Ike Ekweremadu. Where do you stand in this circumstance?
One of the hallmarks of constitutional democracy is the fundamental rights of people. These include rights to travel, rights to freedom of movement, rights to freedom of association. Except we want to have an autocracy. So long it’s a democracy, then you got to be a democrat. What a democrat does is that he respects the rights of others. For instance, I am traveling next (this) week. I will be in Houston, and I will also be in Atlanta. I will go to anywhere I want to go in the world. I don’t care. Senator Ekweremadu despite the assault he suffered has also said that people should be free to go to wherever they want. Because of that, I do not really see why anybody should be afraid to exercise his rights.
We know that the Southeast governors have also issued a warning to that effect, but what if the IPOB agitators carry out their threats?
It is only in Nigeria that people do things without getting appropriate sanctions. If you restrict the rights of another person in developed countries, I do not think that the enforcement agencies there will just let you walk around and do that. When the threat was issued, I said it is only here in Nigeria that the police and other enforcement agencies could be afraid of the people and refused to take action. On that basis, we shouldn’t be bothered about what would happen outside the country.
Don’t you think that the military presence in the Souteast through the Operation Python Dance, which the IPOB claimed made them to attack Ekweremadu, will still continue to cause crisis in the region if it was introduced again?
We condemned the military operation when it was introduced and I am sure that it will not happen again. When the Operation Python Dance was launched in the region, Ekweremadu, the Southeast caucus and I, released a statement to condemn it. We made it clear that there was no insurgency and banditry in the Southeast when the military operation was being undertaken there. We told the whole nation that what was going on in the Southeast was that a group of people were just exercising their rights to dissent, in a manner that is recognised worldwide by carrying placards and making statements. They were not disturbing people who were going about their normal businesses. We said that it (military operation) was a hammer that was used to kill a common fly. I also at that time, clearly stated that it was not acceptable to us. What we deduced was that the motive behind the operation was not to stop the agitation, but that it was a different one entirely because we also saw that some group of people believed to be from a particular part of the country were going about killing and maiming innocent citizens in many parts of the country and the government was not doing anything about that. We condemned it on the floor of the Senate and said why would anybody see all these things that are going on and leave the perpetrators, but decided to focus on those who were not carrying arms. I think lessons have been learnt. Maybe we all know now, and would not want that to happen again. If they still insist on returning to the Souteast to launch a fresh military operation, then it means the motive is different because there is no internal dissent there.
Some people are asking Souteast governors to initiate anti-grazing bill and reject the Ruga Settlement programme of the Federal Government to avoid the continued killings and kidnappings of innocent people by the Fulani herdsmen. What is your take on this?
I do not think that the governors of the South eastern states are incapable of taking charge of what happens in their various states. On the Ruga business, I can be very clear. There is nothing in the constitution that gives the Federal Government any right to go and legislate on anything concerning grazing. There is no such right. The Federal Government may have the right to settle some nomads, but you don’t settle them in a place that the state does not guarantee because it is the state that will guarantee the space since the Land Use Act gives the governors of each state the power to allocate land. It is, therefore, something that is domiciled in the state. The Federal Government cannot just come and say it wants to put a settlement anywhere.
But a Presidential aide, who is the immediate liaison officer for the Senate, Ita Enang, said you people approved part of the funds for the establishment of Ruga in the 2019 budget?
No. There is no such money in the 2019 budget. There was nowhere in the Ministry of Agriculture budget where such was stated because we would not accept it on the floor of the Senate. We looked at all sectoral allocation, which was opened to everybody. For the future, what I think really is that we have issues with the enforcement of the laws that we have in place in this country. It, therefore, behooves on all the South eastern governors to pass the laws that will restrict movement of cattle so as to prevent grazing that could lead to something else whereby some other groups would come in to say they were avenging anything. Once that is done and the laws are passed, then they should implement the laws. For instance, an analyst on a national television programme has said that he wants somebody to tell him, that person from Zamfara, Sokoto, Kebbi or anywhere in the North, who wants to leave his homeland and say he is relocating to a Ruga colony here in the Southeast. According to the analyst, there are some migrants from outside Nigeria, who don’t live within the country and that some people mischievously are looking for a way to accommodate them here to do a demographic change. So, we really need to be very careful here. Until somebody can also confirm to me that person, who come from a village in Kano State, that would want to come and live in Abia State. Why would he move? In order not to tear the fabric of this country apart all the ploys and schemes about Ruga will tend to stretch what is holding us together to the elastic limit. Such things should be jettisoned by a government that really cares about its citizens. Every citizen of this country also deserves to live in safety wherever he finds himself because that is the reason for having a government in the first instance. Any government that is unable to guarantee the welfare and security of its citizens does not deserve to be in office.
There are allegations that the National Assembly is condoning corruption by not acting on the reports of the Auditor-General of the Federation, which usually expose corruption in the various MDAs. As the leader of the opposition, what are you going to do differently?
Let me also put the issue in a proper perspective so that our citizens will know the actual situation of things. Under the constitution, the National Assembly can only make recommendations, which would be sent to the president of the country. When the Public Accounts Committee looks through the books and collates all the infractions, it is debated on the floor and passed. It will then be sent to the president for action. The parliament would have done its part. The opposition would have done its part. If the president failed to take action, then we will lay the blame where it should be, which is that the president is condoning corruption. It will be a different scenario in the Ninth Assembly because what we will be doing at this time is that when this happens the opposition apart from taking the report of our investigation based on the audit report to the floor, will also push for the parliament to also publicise the contents contained in the document that we have sent to the president for his action. Maybe all these while, we have not been publicising it and that is why nothing seems to be done on the audit reports submitted to us, which we acted upon. Maybe some people are sitting in the Villa and saying don’t mind those people. We are going to be giving details of our findings and recommendations now so that blames are going to be situated properly. If we had the powers of sanctions, we probably would have been enabled to do what we are supposed to be doing. At the moment, we will work according to the mandate giving to us by the people through the constitution of the country.